Interpretation and Linguistic Inequality (Crossroads Day 2)

My own presentation was scheduled for 5 pm on Friday (July 21). Two panelists didn’t show. This was disappointing as their topics seemed closely aligned, however it gave Inka and myself flexibility and allowed time for a rousing discussion within the group. We had a whopping audience of three (!) to begin, then two more wandered in late, another one later, and three more latest: a grand total of nine. Not bad at all. Two of the audience members turned out to be translators for the European Communities (bonus for me!!) and a third had friends who worked within the European Institutions.
Our panel was called “EU: Europe Beyond Geography?” (2.51). Inka’s presentation, “European Public Spheres: Uniting and Dividing,” explored how political subjectivity is constructed in time and space through media systems and by pro-European journalists. I won’t summarize her entire talk but rather will select the parts that (in my mind) led into my talk, or provided me with food for thought about my topic. For instance, Inka characterized the pro-European journalists as the new elite because they are so close to power. These journalists are also a new class because they’ve been able to escape their national landscape. Now they are trying to find a niche for their country in the media geography about the EU: what is our nation doing here? Inka described this as a “new type of instrumental journalism.”
I noted this for its parallels with interpreters, who are also elite by being close to power and have improved their class standing by being dually-situated in their home country and Brussels/Strausburg. The economics of interpretation are quite the battleground, however, and I don’t know how this compares with journalists. The European institutions are insisting on hiring staff interpreters (known as officials or functionnaires) only if they relocate to Brussels. They are also driving incomes down because younger people from newly-joined East European countries are willing to accept lower wages than their West European counterparts. There are still many individuals who work as freelancers &emdash; hired only on an as needed basis or for short-term contracts &emdash; but the bureaucratizing trend is squeezing out many of the most experienced interpreters and discouraging this independent form of labor.


Inka also listed several tendencies in contemporary EU journalism, including the news itself as a commodity and the challenge of covering processes instead of events. By the latter, Inka referred to the genre of news being event-based and relying on drama. It is a challenge to sustain audience interest in the long-term slow processes of the European Institutions. She didn’t expand much on the commodity aspect but it ties right in with language itself being a commodity and therefore “for sale” &emdash; as described above but also at a deeper structural level. Specificlly, in terms of how the European Parliament no longer designates funds specifically for interpreting but rather offers each nation the choice whether to spend a certain block of funds on interpreting or something else.
A hot tip for me is that the Financial Times receives leaks from Brussels some 24 hours in advance. Inka said, “as everyone knows.” 🙂
Here are the overheads from my presentation. I don’t have a nice schemata yet of the interaction of levels and data; I’m still sorting my way up. Manuel said his friends have described the interpretation system as “a madhouse.” I disagree with the metaphor of a mental institution whose occupants are solipsistically engaged in their own dramas: there is a sensible and logical system at work in the European Parliament and it functions extraordinarily well. The problem, from my point-of-view, is overcoming the monolingualistic attitude that assumes communication is best when it occurs in &emdash; ostensibly – the same language.
I found a textbook example of this in a book I browsed at Robinson Crusoe on Taksim’s main drag, Istikilal Caddesi. Published in 2003, language is indexed once in The Enlargement of the EU. The author’s prejudice is plain, basically stating meaning cannot occur through interpretation.
“Owing to the fact that the increase of one-to-one relations between languages rises exponentially when the number of official languages grows, there will inevitably be considerable additional costs of translation and, even more worrying, a further decrease in the possibility of genuine dialogue taking place in major meetings of the EU institutions” (The Impact of Enlargement on the Constitution of the European Union by Bruno de Witte, emphasis added, p. 227. The introductions clarifies that “constitution” here means the actual relations between member and candidate states.)
While not a madhouse, the interpretation regime at the European Parliament is extraordinarily complex, involving more than 60 simultaneous interpreters working out of and in to more than twenty languages at the same time, sometimes including a third intermediary language if no interpreter has a direct source-target language combination. The gist of my research project is to
put
a) the official rhetoric that links “democracy,” “multilingualism,” and “the right to speak” in one’s national language with outcomes of efficiency and transparency in governance into conversation
with
b) the observed and felt experience of interpretation. At this point in the research, part b only includes the perspective of working interpreters; I hope to expand this with the perspectives of the users of interpretation services (officials, delegates, guests, etc).
In this regard I am working “up” from the interactional level to the institutional and structural levels, extrapolating from practices “on-the-ground” to longer-term possible outcomes on the basis of trends that this comparative discourse analysis (a public/political discourse and a private/professional discourse) brings into view.
The discussion following our presentations was animated. Inka’s presentation elicited questions regarding European identity: what it means “to be European” and also how “Europe” is defined. A generational difference was identified between those of (what I will call) middle-age and younger generations who “experience it differently.” The “it” refers to Europeanness as identity. Personally, I think the desire to fix identity is a bias of both academia in general (borrowed from the natural sciences empirical paradigm) and of middle and older generations of social scientists in particular. I believe it is a residue of modernism in social science.
I observe a similar strand of monologic in the desire for a lingua franca. (If it isn’t obvious, let me be explicit and state that I am using this post as a responsive engagement with the discourse that emerged as we discussed the presentations. In other words, I am not arguing with individuals per se, rather with the points-of-view raised which are representative of strands in the larger discourse I’ve been tracking through my research.)
Two distinct views were raised regarding interpretation within the EU as a whole (recall that my study is focused exclusively on the European Parliament, which maintains the largest official language regime. The European Commission and the Council of Ministers operate with reduced language regimes.) One view argues: “The [language] combinations that must be put into action are impossible. English is a tool that needs to be used – not as a form of domination but as one common language.” It was further argued that English as a lingua franca would “depoliticize English and would not conflict with a parallel system of programs for linguistic preservation.”
The other view argues: “what has happened within the [written] translation division will also happen with [spoken] interpretation.” The insider description of what is happening regarding written translation is that only fifteen percent of documents are actually translated into all the official languages; “only the important ones.” This has happened over the past five years. Most of the work therefore occurs “exclusively in English.”
From this perspective, the European Parliament is “a screen that hides the reality.”
As the discussion progressed, the jargon of the European Institutions was labeled, “Europish,” and a reference to “Generation E” was made: to younger people who do view Europe as a whole and travel comfortably using English as the lingua franca.
Overall, this was a tremendous opportunity for me to air some preliminary findings and speculations with knowledgeable and engaged peers. I’m still working with the mix of pessimism and pragmatism that characterizes the overall tone of this discourse of the (im)possibility of pluralingual governance. There were a few marked “silences” &emdash; gaps and hesitations in the conversation &emdash; where I wondered if my Americanness (the outsider) was being left unnamed, but my overall optimism was clearly identified. 🙂 It remains my hope that by articulating the benefits of interpretation &emdash; the maintenance of language difference and therefore of different cultural logics and worldviews &emdash; that an ideological key can be turned, bringing contemporary understandings of the philosophy of language into the practical, everyday realm of co-constructing the future to which we and our descendents hurtle.

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